Blowing my own horn
Room for argument

The Dream of a Common Language

Out of Step Jew posted recently about Towards a Common Judaism, an essay by the editors of Azure. First, the editors describe the chasms separating the denominations; then they give cause for hope. They cite the Reform movement's recent movement towards engaging with traditionalism (which could be a bridge to dialogue with, say, Orthodoxy), the Nahal Haredi (Israeli Army unit which caters to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox, thereby enabling them to serve and removing a major obstacle to intradenominational harmony in Israel), and the Kinneret Declaration.

I'd never heard of the Kinneret Declaration before, but it says some impressive things: "We, secular, traditional, and religious Jews, each recognize the contribution of the others to the physical and spiritual existence of the Jewish people.... We are one people. We share one past and one destiny." What a marvel! Unfortunately, Out of Step Jew seems to think the Kinneret Declaration was largely ineffectual, so it's hard to know how hopeful a sign it really is.

Even so, I completely agree with Azure's editors that it's time to focus on creating a sense of ourselves as members of the same community."What is needed," they write, "is a change in paradigm along the lines suggested a century ago by the scholar and educator Solomon Schechter, who in His Majesty's Opposition called on Jews holding different viewpoints to see themselves as belonging to competing political parties within a single, great republic[.]"

My preferred metaphor is similar: we may be a family which disagrees about many things, but we're all the same family. My Orthodox cousin may go about his Jewishness in ways which baffle me, but I don't deny his right to define his own way of being Jewish, and I continue to value our relatedness. This is literally true within my family, which spans Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Renewal affiliations and practices; how good would it be if k'lal Yisrael, the greater Jewish community, could focus this way?

I disagree with the editors, though, in the final step their logic takes: "Such an approach does not negate the role of comparison, but shifts its focus. Instead of highlighting differences among the movements of Judaism, it suggests that it is more revealing to consider how Judaism as a whole differs from the leading civilizations, philosophies, and religions with which it is in competition, whether these be Christianity, Buddhism, or the main streams of Enlightenment thought." (Italics theirs.) I agree that we should focus less on how we, as Jews of varying denominations, differ; but I don't agree that we should find our common ground in defining ourselves in opposition to the rest of the world.

To my mind, a certain amount of what I'll call insularity -- an inward focus and us/them mentality -- made sense historically. Our history of persecution was a good reason to turn inward. But in today's multicultural world, I think we are poorly-served by the insular impulse. How does focusing on how we differ from other peoples help us? It isolates us, creates opposition where none need exist, and prevents us from perceiving opportunities for connection. Which is not to say that we should pretend we are all the same; vive la différence! But I choose to celebrate difference, and to work on communicating through it. I define my Jewishness positively (I am, I believe, I think, I read, I write, I pray), not negatively (I am not like you, or you, or you).

Yes: it is important to the survival of the Jewish people that we learn to relate as family, instead of fighting bitterly about who is doing Judaism "right." But I also think it's important to the survival of humanity that we all learn to relate that way -- which means forming genuine connections outside our community, not just within it.

A dear friend, a local Episcopal priest, came with his wife to our seder last week. They participated with gusto, and enhanced our gathering greatly. In an e-mail the next day, he wrote to me that the experience had strengthened his resolve to "find the common ground and respect the distinct terrain" of our two faiths. That is precisely what I aspire to, and what I hope the Jewish community will come to aspire to: engaging with the rest of the world in a way which simultaneously cherishes common ground and respects the different terrain. Maybe the first step is to learn how to approach our fellow Jews that way...